How to Plate Food: A Guide for Beginner Cooks
By Trevor Stinson
If you have any sort of social media account or have been on the internet in the last few years, then chances are you’ve come across photos of delicious looking food that has been plated absolutely beautifully. (If you haven’t, then might I recommend the r/CulinaryPlating subreddit from our Top 10 Cooking and Food Subreddits post?) I’m also going to go out on a limb and assume that if you’re reading a blog post about plating, chances are that you either don’t know what you’re doing, or you want to improve. In either case, this post will give you the skills and knowledge to get your food looking much better!
Back to Basics
I’m sorry to say, but a good chunk of the very fancy and pretentiously plated meals require skills, tools, or equipment that are simply beyond the arsenal of the home cook. This post is going to focus on the basics — things that could reasonably be found in any kitchen or are cheap to get. So to start, here is a list of items that I think you should have in your kitchen if you want to start your plating journey.
This might seem a bit obvious, but if you don’t have plates, then you can’t plate anything. In terms of what kind of plates to get, that can be a bit of a tricky question. Ideally, you would have an assortment of different plates and dishes that can be used for different colour palettes.
For example, I have way too many plates:
I obviously don’t recommend having a collection like mine, because it’s a bit overkill. Get a set of circular white porcelain plates that are versatile. (These ones are the exact ones that I first bought when I was looking to step up my game. They’re fairly good quality for the price.) White will work with almost any colour of food. It creates high contrast if you want to get technical. Vibrant stir fry? White works. Steak and potatoes? White works. Try to avoid dishes with patterns on the rim if you can — the pattern will pull attention away from food.
Tongs are such a useful tool to have in the kitchen. If you don’t have a pair, you should go out and buy some even if you aren’t interested in working on your plating. When it comes to plating they have a variety of uses, especially when it comes to pasta. Fun fact: if you’ve seen a picture from us of pasta in a nice nest on a plate, it’s been made with tongs. A carving fork also works, but I’ve never had a chance to try it.
Ring Mould (Mold? Moufodsjkld?)
A good ring mould is especially handy when it comes to plating. It gives you the opportunity to make things into nice circles on the plate, which, when coupled with circular plates, adds to the symmetry of the dish — we’ll talk about that later. They can also double as a circular cutter which good if you’re making perogies, ravioli, cookies, or anything else that needs to be circular.
A good mesh sieve is an essential tool. I shouldn’t have to explain why you need one, but here we go:
Straining sauces so they aren’t lumpy
I consider them so essential that I have three identical ones. Seriously.
This is the first tool that I would recommend having that isn’t really multi-use. And to be honest, if you don’t have tweezers, you’ll be fine. I’m including it because sometimes when you’re trying to plate something, a piece of food won’t land quite where you want it to. And if you’re like me and have giant sausage fingers, then trying to fix it will result in you knocking another piece of food off, or just messing up the arrangement in general. Enter the tweezers — they give you a bit more precision in where you place things. The ones I use are from an old precision screwdriver set that I don’t use anymore. I sanitized and cleaned them up, and they’ve been perfect for what I need.
Squeeze Bottle (Optional)
This is another item that I wouldn’t consider super mandatory. If you have some extra cash, consider buying a set of squeeze bottles. These ones here are similar to the ones we have. Squeeze bottles are good for holding purees, sauces, oils, etc, and will allow for those nice precise lines that you see.
Plating food is essentially an artistic exercise, so to talk about theory might seem a little strange. But, if you’re like me and you don’t have an artistic bone in your body, then there are a few guidelines that can nudge you in the right direction.
Symmetry vs Asymmetry
While doing research for this blog post, I found out that the word symmetry has a few different but related meanings. Since I was trained as a mathematician, I’m going to go ahead and use the math-y meaning about objects looking the same after you’ve rotated them or reflected them in a mirror. And so asymmetry would be the opposite of that — if you rotate or reflect something and it doesn’t look the same.
So why did I go through all the trouble to talk about that? The main reason is that deciding on when to use symmetry or asymmetry is going to help you compose the plate. (And that right there is the most pretentious sentence I’ve ever written down.)
Take, for example, a circle.
You can rotate a circle clockwise or counterclockwise however much you want and it’s going to look the same. You can also choose one of the infinite lines of symmetry and reflect the circle along that line, and it will look the same. So what does this mean for plating? Well, if you put your food on one of the lines of symmetry of a circular plate everything is going to look nice. If you don’t, everything is going to look less nice.
To be honest, I’m not sure of the actual reason why this happens, but my guess has something to do with our brains wanting to have everything be in nice neat patterns. Keeping everything as symmetrical as possible creates a nice pattern that makes our brains happy. Likewise, failing to adhere to symmetry adds tension to the image that our brains don’t like — kind of like a sneeze that just won’t leave, or a melody that gets unresolved. This is asymmetry at work. If you’re a beginner, my suggestion is to stick to symmetry as much as possible. Asymmetrical plating does exist (in fact many of the super high end restaurants will utilize it to make things interesting), but for now, do try to stick to symmetry.
As a final note, circular plates aren’t the only plates that have lines of symmetry in them, but they are the most common shape for plates. If you have a non circular plate the same rules apply: find a line of symmetry and try to keep your food as close to it as possible.
Negative Space and Portion Size
Okay, we’ve all been there. You’re at a chain restaurant or a family holiday dinner and the food arrives (or you load up your plate). If your experience is anything like mine then the food will have been placed edge to edge, completely covering the plate. How appealing does that usually look? How often do you see that happening in a super fancy dish? The answer to both of those questions should tell you everything you need to know.
Portion size is important — remember, if you’re eating to the point that you’re stuffed and uncomfortable then you’ve overeaten. So plan out your portions properly. Look online for suggested or recommended portion sizes and stick to them. Also, consider that for some reason our brains like odd numbers of food as opposed to even numbers. 5 perogies on a plate will look more appealing than 4 or 6 for some reason. So stick to odd numbers as much as possible.
Now that you have everything portioned properly, it’s time to consider negative space. What is negative space? It’s the space between things on the plate. It’s important to include negative space in your dish because it gives your eyes and brain a chance to process what’s happening. When food is filling the plate from rim to rim, then your brain has a hard time making out what is what and just sort of clumps it all together. Give your brain a break and help it understand what’s happening by leaving some room.
So how much room should you leave? That’s going to depend on the plate size and what you’re making. Don’t place a cracker in the middle of a full size dinner plate — that will look weird. Similarly, don’t place a 16oz steak on a small side plate — that will also look weird. Play around until it looks natural.
The final thing that I’d like to touch on is cleaning up your plate. It’s okay to clean things up before serving your dish. If a little bit of sauce went astray, just grab a damp cloth and wipe it up. One of your tomatoes in the salad fell? Wipe up the tomato and salad dressing residue after. Pretend like you’re serving it to a paying customer and clean that shit up.
The best way to figure out the whole plating thing is to look at examples of what to do and what not to do. So let’s quickly analyze a few plates.
Okay, to start, we have a circular bed of mashed potatoes in the center of a circular plate, this keeps everything symmetrical. Next we have the chicken breast placed on a line of symmetry, again keeping things symmetrical. The pine nuts are on top of the chicken in a rough line adhering to the symmetry thing. Finally we have the circle of pomegranate molasses that yet again keeps with the symmetry.
Again, the name of this particular game is symmetry. Circular pasta nest in the middle of a circular plate with drops of oil placed in a loose circle near the rim.
This plate breaks pretty much all the rules that we discussed. The pasta is haphazardly thrown on the plate without regards to the lines of symmetry (or proper portion sizes), the chicken is placed down next to it for no particular reason. And the plate is super dirty. If I wanted to go back and make this look nice, I probably would have gone for a smaller amount of pasta in the middle of the plate as a bed, and the chicken placed on top.
Yes, this is another pasta dish, however, I wanted to use it as an example of what the lack of negative space can do. There is no negative space on this plate. The pasta is shoved rim to rim and then garlic toast is added on top to really take away any sort of visual interest. All around bad. Also note the specs of crap on the rim of the plate — clean that shit up.
I hope that you enjoyed this post on plating basics. I know all too well how overwhelming everything can seem at first. Just stick to the basics and in no time you’ll be able to take Instagram worthy photos of your food that makes your friends go, “Oh dang, is that a restaurant dish?”